A disclaimer before I begin my review of “My Way of Life” by Joan Crawford: this is a book review. I’m not here to discuss Christina Crawford and whether or not her “Mommie Dearest” accusations are true. I’m also not discussing the “Feud” TV show. Furthermore, I do like Joan Crawford and have watched almost all of her films, minus a handful of her silents (I would say my favorites are A Woman’s Face, Possessed (1947), Mildred Pierce and Love on the Run). Now that that’s out of the way, I’ll continue.
Starting in Hollywood in 1925, Joan Crawford endured a career that spanned 47 years. When her career began at age 19, she was every bit the flapper—the personification of youth. Even author F. Scott Fitzgerald said, “Joan Crawford is doubtless the best example of the flapper, the girl you see in smart night clubs.”
As her career continued into the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and on, Joan Crawford assumed the sophisticated lady persona that was popular of the time. Well-dressed, well-mannered and well-bred, this was an image that Crawford maintained for the rest of her life. And this is what “My Way of Life” focuses on.
“My Way of Life” is really a Hollywood self-help book. The book begins with Joan telling her readers what she is doing today, in 1971 when the book was published. Joan lives alone in an apartment in Manhattan, always busy at her desk. She tells us a bit about her background, the school she dropped out of (Stephen College in Missouri), her early days in Hollywood, and a bit about each of her husbands (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.; Franchot Tone; Phillip Terry and Alfred Steele).
Joan dictated the book on a tape machine, which was then put together by Audrey Davenport, who Joan thanks at the start of the book.
“It’s my philosophies rather than an actual biography. My life story has been told over and over. My thoughts about life are newer,” Joan Crawford said in a July 6, 1971, newspaper article.
And then we get down to brass tacks. Joan tells “today’s woman” how to:
- Have a successful marriage and keep your husband interested
- Tips for moving to and decorating a new home
- Entertain guests in your home, including who to invite, how to enjoy your own party and what foods to serve (and how to serve them)
- Start a career (even if your husband won’t like it)
- Work in a man’s world—remaining powerful, professional and feminine all at the same time
- Travel in an organized fashion (with 15 to 37 suitcases)
- Dress for your role in life
- Accomplish a “lovely figure” with exercise tips and things not to eat (peas, lima beans, avocados, olives, dried beans, corn, butter, most cheese, fatty meats, sugar, chocolate, potatoes, rice, bread, pasta, and creamed soups)
- Accomplish “lovely hair and skin,” including some recipes for homemade masques
To say some of Joan Crawford’s advice throughout the book is over-the-top may be an understatement. Some of her ideas—particularly about dealing with men in the work place and how to dress—have dated, but that’s not surprising.
While she is trying to speak to the everyday housewife, some of her advice isn’t attainable for the woman of 1971. I’m not sure that someone that was a household name for 40 years could have related to the average housewife of that time period.
Good advice from Joan:
Some of her advice made good sense, particularly when it came to entertaining. These are passages I thought were useful:
- “Billy Haines gave me an important rule for entertaining. We were giving a party and I said, ‘Billy, I don’t think I can handle 200 people. I think I’ll have them here for cocktails and then take them (to a restaurant)…He said, ‘Never move your party—except from one area to another in your home.”
- “The only time not to try (cooking a new meal) is when the boss is coming for dinner…Wear a simple dress in which you always feel comfortable, prepare a simple meal that’s always a success…After all, the boss knows what your salary is.”
- Rehearse your outfit before giving a party.
- “I have strong feelings about people who issue invitations to come at 7 p.m. and don’t open the dining-room doors until 9:30 p.m. … An hour is long enough to drink. After 2 and a half hours, people are sodden and not very amusing—furthermore they can’t appreciate or even taste the food…”
- “I feel a real sense of accomplishment when I get down on my knees and scrub my own floors.” And “I never did think you could get into the corners with any mop.” –This may sound nutty to some people but she’s right.
- “Find your own style and have the courage to stick to it.”
- “Choose your clothes for your way of life.”
- “Find your happiest colors—the ones that make you feel good.”
- “The intelligent woman adapts herself to fashion, but never to fad.”
- “’When in doubt, don’t get it’ is never so true when it comes to clothes. And marriage.”
- “My most important rule (for clothes): Never put anything back soiled … This not only saves time, but it saves the clothes. Nothing ruins them so quickly as being left dirty and wrinkled until you find time to care for them.”
- “The thing I can’t stand—and so many women are guilty of it—is to see makeup that stops at the chin line.”
Amusing or startling quotes:
- “Make your husband talk about his work. Drag it out of him, if you have to.”
- “Of course I wouldn’t want to have hippies come crawling in with unwashed feet, but all the young people I know are bright and attractive and have something to say.”
- “I have some strict rules about how food is presented. Hot food must be on hot plates. It’s no problem to put plates in the oven after the rest has been turned down, and I think it’s an insult to a guest to offer meat on a plate that comes right out of the cupboard.” – I laughed out loud at this
- (On wives having careers) “Men put up all kinds of objections, all of which cover up their real, subconscious fear that ‘she’ll come home tired and won’t want to go to bed with me.’ … But the fact is that when a woman feels she’s done a good job and accomplished something, she’s charged. She’s ready for sex. Maybe he’ll be too tired that night. And maybe he’ll get raped!” –I gasped at this one
- “One thing a woman has to handle in business is taking men out to lunch … Most men feel uneasy about being a woman’s guest in a restaurant. The hostess should never, of course, handle money … When possible, I take along a male colleague from my office and he signs the check.”
- “Pants are probably here to stay. But they shouldn’t stay long on any but the most lithe and slim-hipped.”
- “To me, a well-dressed woman without a hat is like an oil painting without a frame around it.”
- (on exercise) “if you like wearing slim skirts, there’s nothing uglier than having two additional bulges just below where the hips naturally curve. And of course if you have them you can’t possibly wear pants.”
- “One rule: Never let your husband see you exercising. No woman rolling around on the floor looks really adorable after she’s passed her third birthday.”
What I learned about Joan (outside of her lifestyle)
There are a few things further I learned about Joan Crawford just from the tone of her writing. For starters, it’s obvious Joan Crawford really loved her husband Alfred Steele, who passed away 12 years prior in 1959, and that she still missed him. It’s also apparent that she was proud of still working for his company—Pepsi (she mentions the soda brand often throughout the book).
And while I’m not speculating about what went on with Joan and her adopted daughters Christina, Cathy and Cindy, I get a sense that possibly some trouble was already brewing. She speaks highly of all of her children and reminisces about some of their childhood trips. But at one point she writes:
“I think I was a good mother. All of my four children were adopted at the age of 10 days, after I’d had a heartbreaking series of miscarriages. They understood they were especially chosen … Of course every woman tries to be a good mother and then wonders if, after all her best efforts, her children will wind up on a headshrinker’s couch complaining about bad treatment. I was strict about somethings … They were taught the kind of self-sufficiency I’d had to learn in quite a different way when I was working my way through school … But I didn’t stand over them with a whip.”
I also got the sense that Joan Crawford didn’t care for or understand the stay-at-home housewife, which was a common lifestyle for women at the time. I interpreted several jabs at the homemaker. She constantly talked about how they needed to find outside interests and not bore their husband with talk of children and bridge games, get a job so their husbands would find them interesting, or research their husband’s work so they have something to discuss. Admittedly, my mom has always been a stay-at-home mom/homemaker and I felt a little defensive about her attitude.
While the woman of 2017 would be appalled by some of Joan’s “working in a man’s world” tips — such as discreetly paying for a male guest’s business lunch so he isn’t embarrassed that a woman is paying — you also have to remember this: Joan Crawford was encouraging women to have careers outside the home, knowing they could do a man’s job just as well.
My overall review:
For years, “My Way of Life” has been an elusive cult classic that I have wanted to read. Until 2017, the only way to generally buy this previously out-of-print book was to order it from a seller on Ebay, Abe Books, Albris, etc. where you often would be charged $75+ just for a paperback copy.
I was never so excited to see this back in print (thanks Ryan Murphy and Feud, I guess?). It’s a short book at only 181 pages, but the reprint, unfortunately, doesn’t have all of the photos from the original book. While it may have some eye-widening or laugh-out-loud worthy passages, it was an enjoyable read. I did feel a bit inferior while reading it—thinking I needed to redecorate my apartment, re-haul my wardrobe and stop using my ears as “coat hangers for my hair.” Joan’s exercises also made no sense in writing and didn’t sound very effective. I occasionally would think “I wonder how Joan would critique my outfit for work.”
Joan recorded the book on record, which you can listen to here. There are a few minor differences in content between the written and recorded book.
Everyone said “My Way of Life” was crazy, and some parts are but it wasn’t wild or outrageous like other reviews made it out to be. I wasn’t rolling on the floor with laughter or gasping every second like I thought I would. Some of the life tips make sense while most of them you have to take with a grain of salt. A large portion was just a star at the end of the her career telling how she lived. I almost felt sorry for Joan because by 1971, her Hollywood and studio system were gone but she was still trying to play that part.
From her meticulous lifestyle tips, it’s obvious that Joan Crawford was high maintenance. But for a 65-year-old woman who had lived this way since she was 19, what else would you expect? Her life was exactly the way I would imagine it—and any other star for that matter. I’m sure Norma Shearer, Paulette Goddard, Lana Turner, or Loretta Young were just as particular about their own lives, in their own way. These women were all stars—trained to be camera ready at all times.
Joan’s daily living may not be my way of life, but it’s every bit the life of a star.
P.S. While listening to the book on record, I was mopping my floor—Joan would be proud even though she does say scrubbing on your hands and knees is more effective.